Big Ears: 5 Festival Highlights Flying Under the Radar
The upcoming Big Ears Festival, happening March 27-29 in Knoxville, TN, is notable because it brings together some of the most eclectic and talented musicians from across a diverse cross-section of genres, from Inuit throat-singing to avant-garde classical. While some of the bigger acts, like artists-in-residence Kronos Quartet, Jim Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, and tUnE-yArDs have almost instant name recognition, other musicians on the schedule are lesser-known but just as worth your time. In fact, Big Ears has one of the most exciting lineups I’ve seen. While the festival is absolutely a chance to catch acts with a global presence and following, it’s also an opportunity to discover artists who will invite you into totally new genres and listening experiences. Here are five musicians who may be flying just under your radar, but who are absolutely worth checking out at this year’s Big Ears:
1) Hildur Guðnadóttir
The music of this Icelandic cellist is haunting, evocative, and powerful in a subtle, minimalistic way. Through her masterful shifts in tone and mood, Guðnadóttir creates an intimate inner soundscape that manages to trace out senses of both fragile beauty and hard-won strength. Although she has worked with many musicians, including The Knife and Throbbing Gristle, her solo work allows her to take full possession of her sound. And possession is a good word for it: her most recent album, Saman (2014, Touch), also features her ethereal vocals, which float over the sounds of her cello like mist over the mountains. Guðnadóttir’s textured sound evokes the Icelandic landscape itself. Its otherworldly features, many of which were created by the violent chaos of volcanic eruptions, seem, like the music, to exist in a moment of stolen stillness amidst the ceaseless shifting of tectonic places and cosmic forces.
2) Häxan, re-scored by Demdike Stare
A multimedia event that pairs the filmic with the aural, this screening of a silent film about witchcraft released in 1922 will be accompanied by the experimental, minimalist sounds of Demdike Stare, a duo who produces strange and spellbinding sounds that are, frankly, perfect for a modern-day, technology-infused witches’ sabbath. Their own name reflects their interest in all things esoteric: Demdike was an alternate name for Elizabeth Southerns, accused of witchcraft in one of the most famous trials in history. Demdike Stare’s dark and brooding sounds signal the possibility of entry into alternate realms that promise magic and mayhem. The film is also a darkly unfolding exploration of witches as they were imagined in Scandinavia circa the 1920’s. It quickly gained a reputation for what were, at the time, graphic depictions of sexuality and violence. Today, it’s considered one of the most influential and important silent films ever made, and it was most recently re-released as part of the Criterion Collection.
3) Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn exudes cool. His sheer mastery of the guitar is at the root of his distinctive, flowing sound, which lies somewhere between indie, singer-songwriter, and folk musician. Although he was born in Pennsylvania and lives in Brooklyn, his music feels decidedly Southern. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a session of drinking on a front porch deep in the Appalachian mountains. The music rolls over you like the waves of a wide summer river, and Gunn’s voice, which manages to be both smooth and gravelly, lulls you into an almost-hypnotic state of attention. Gunn’s most recent album, Way Out Weather (2014) showcases his instrumental and vocal ability. The songs, redolent with poetry, stick with you without ever being anything other than simple, direct, and heartful. But just when you think you’ve got him pinned, Gunn shifts into songs like “Tommy’s Congo,” which is infused with electronic, African, and Middle Eastern elements. Despite the stylistic shift, Gunn is still the literal and symbolic center, with his guitar and voice rising over and uniting all.
4) Tanya Tagaq
It’s possible that you’ve already heard the otherworldly sounds of Tanya Tagaq’s Inuk throat-singing. If not, the experience can at first be jarring, and even a little off-putting, as she careens in and out of registers most people are incapable of moving into in the first place. The uncanny resonances of deeper, guttural sounds are balanced with the floating beauty of higher notes. The experience of listening happens in the most embodied way–really, it’s impossible not to feel this music on a visceral level. But the strangeness of the sounds is matched by their sheer impressiveness, as well as their ability to invoke strong emotional responses without using anything resembling words. The experience of seeing a performance is undeniably one you won’t want to miss, as sounds are often accompanied by equally evocative gestures and movements. The title of Tagaq’s most recent album, Animism (2014), is also an appropriate way to think about the music, which gives a voice to moods and traditions that can seem impenetrable to most. And there is, certainly, something holy in it.
5) Jozef Van Wissem
The lute is one of those instruments that, for me, brings to mind an image of medieval romance–of a young courtly gentleman wooing a beautiful lady in a castle garden. The medieval roots of the instrument continue to define its sound, which can transport the listener into worlds and histories long past. But while Jozef Van Wissem can certainly conjure these images and emotions, he also wields the instrument in altogether new ways, experimenting with the sound to create new forms and images characterized by innovation. Van Wissem is a prolific musician. His most recent album, It Is Time For You To Return (2014) is a testament to his skill and his versatility. He was also heavily featured on the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), a beautiful, blood-soaked ode to vampirism and music in the modern era.